Monday, October 24, 2011

an army marches on its stomach

We’ve just started our fourth week of shooting and things are pretty much going to plan. It’s hard to know until you’ve done a bunch of movies exactly what’s normal for the situation, but we dropped a bit of time early on which we should be able to make up this week.

We’re shooting at ‘H’ stage a Shepperton studios - one of the UK film industry’s great institutions. Notable projects to make use of H’s lavish accommodations include: Star Wars Episode IV, 2001: A Space Oddyssey and Alien. I say ‘lavish’ with my tongue pressed so firmly in my cheek that I am slightly worried it will not resume its original shape. H Stage is a gigantic shed. It is not heated and its amenities run up to, and including a floor, four walls and a ceiling. The toilets appear to have been production-designed to resemble a place where someone has been caught cottaging on an episode of The Bill.

As soon as the temperature dropped below 20C the cast and crew revolted, and started demanding heating on stage. Despite my counter-suggestions which were, variously, to ‘man-up’ and ‘buy some thermal pants’, eventually we were forced to capitulate to their demands and we erected an eZ-up tent village to protect their delicate constitutions. We are therefore currently spending hundreds of pounds a day to heat a tent in a shed.

This was indeed not the first mutiny of the shoot. As anyone who has ever tried to mount a large scale production will testify, food is always a problem. We tried to feed our crew from the canteen at Shepperton (which is run by another company rather than the studio itself) and disaster ensued. For what it’s worth, my advice to any producer is sort out the catering properly, up front, and mostly do not trust any caterers that tell you that, despite the fact that what you’re currently eating resembles tepid yak vomit, when it comes to the shoot they will be providing a smorgasboard of locally-sourced delights. (The definition of ‘Locally sourced’ in this instance appears to have been extended to include Iceland in Staines town centre).

When the great luncheon revolt of 2011 happened I felt pretty upset. I’d been on this subject from the start, and had received all sorts of promises from the caterers etc. that this was in hand. We couldn’t bring in outside caterers (as you normally would) as we’re such a small crew - no-one would do it for the money. In the end as a last desperate throw of the dice I tried to piggy-back on another (Studio) movie which is also shooting at Shepperton (produced by a friend of mine) and feed our crew from their kitchen. But when that didn’t work out we were forced to admit defeat and hand over cash in the form of per diems to the crew and let them sort it out. This is really the last thing we wanted. crews work hard and deserve to be fed properly, and despite being a relatively small film with all the limitations that implies, if a production can’t feed its crew, it feels like we’re not doing our job.

I am now trying to bribe them with cake.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

from the beginning... pt. 3

[As you can probably tell, I wrote this a while back, but hadn't got round to posting, so I thought I should at least complete the story. Here's the final part - thanks for reading! Z]

Once we'd shot the trailer, post production was key. The guys at Park Village, Omid’s old commercials studio, lent us a space for pickup shots and the rest of the time was spent editing, VFX work, and titles, and burning various models of plastic dinosaurs searching for the right effect. In the great tradition of low budget filmmaking the director fulfilled pretty much every one of these roles, while we the producers sat around in enormous leather armchairs smoking cigars.

After two months and countless versions, we had something we were pretty proud of, especially considering it had cost us a grand total of £500 - made up of personal contributions from the three of us and our executive producer Kwesi Dickson, (who also heroically sacrificed his son’s toy dinosaur to the cause). We uploaded the trailer to Vimeo and Youtube, and immediately spammed the inboxes of everyone who’d ever shown a sniff of interest in the project.

A week after the trailer was released, executive producer Michiyo Yoshizaki came back from a trip to Japan with a letter promising investment into the film, and we had our first piece of the puzzle. A week later we received an offer on distribution from the Middle East and then Germany, and a few days after that Pathé approached us about representing LP for worldwide sales – a huge coup for the film. By the end of the month we had our lead actor attached.

Film festivals on the whole are where most film business gets done outside of Los Angeles, and the 2011 Cannes film festival was the launch of the trailer to the international film industry - the first real test of the market appetite for our movie. With just a dummy trailer, we figured on one or maybe two small territory deals that we could put towards financing the film, but as it turned out Pathé brought home nine deals for places like Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Portugal and Indonesia.

Around May 2011 Pinewood studios announced an initiative to invest in lower budget British films, and we immediately introduced ourselves to the Pinewood team. Like so many of the team on the film, after seeing the trailer they ‘got’ what we were trying to do with Last Passenger and came on board.

The final piece of the puzzle was the BFI, who had championed the film through the long process of script development and then confirmed a significant production investment on top of that.

It was a truly extraordinary couple of months.

I write this final paragraph from my office at Shepperton Studios where Last Passenger starts shooting on friday. We have a train, a studio and a great crew has come together. I’m not going to jinx anything by saying we’re there yet – the films Gods are much more capricious than that - but one thing we can definitely agree on, that was the best £500 we ever spent.

Director Omid Nooshin on the LP set.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

who the *!%& do you think you are...? pt. 2

I’ve been writing this stuff in the mornings on the train on the way out to Shepperton, so it’s taking rather longer than I’d hoped. We’re three days out from the start of the shoot, and there’s a surprising aura of calm among the team. This is principally because we purchased a little more prep time at enormous cost both our budget and to our rectal integrity vis-a-vis our financial overseers, but here we stand on the cusp and so far no one’s died or been arrested, and nothing’s exploded. Given our previous production, that goes down as a pretty good start.

I seem to remember I was partway through the process of justifying my existence, when I was rudely interrupted by having actually to try and produce a film, so I’ll try and pick it up...

Financing: The Snake Oil Salesman

An experienced producer has described the job as follows: "You’re like an emergency room doctor and the movie is like a patient in the operating theatre. Every minute of the process you’re doing everything you can, fighting to keep the patient alive. Except that the patient wants to die..." 

This seems pretty fair. The gear shift between the fantasy of development, and the soul crushing economic realities of actually trying to finance what is effectively a fairytale in the mind of a writer/director/producer is vertigo-inducing.

One thing that becomes clear is that you are actually selling a puff of smoke. To resort for a moment to nauseating marketing speak, at this point you may have a bucketful of sizzle, but precious little steak.

This is an absolutely terrifying concept. You’re asking people to part with potentially millions of pounds of public, private - and sometimes even more thrillingly their own - cash to finance a project that could end up being worth little more than a few rolls of celluloid. [Although actually these days it’s more likely to be a couple of hard drives - whither the romance in the digital age?]

The things that traditionally serve as an indicator of a film’s future performance can be roughly broken down into in the following list - what might be referred to as the ‘Mitigation of Terror Schedule’.

1. Who’s in it.
2. How much it’s going to cost
3. The genre.
4. The target audience.

We as producers are tasked with convincing potential investors that these are irrefutable facts - like gravity, or the story of creation. Addressing No. 1 is a process of creating wildly optimistic casting lists based on the fact that ‘my third cousin once urinated next to Brad Pitt at a baseball game, and so he’ll definitely read the script for us as a favour to Bob‘.

Number 2. It’s a bit like estimating how many grains of sand there are on a very small beach. It’s a small beach, but that’s a hell of a lot of sand. What happens in reality is you hire a line producer, who has a quick look at the script (probably the first ten pages as they tend not to be great readers) and like Dustin Hoffman’s character in ‘Rain Man’, tells you how much it’s going to cost. However, unlike Dustin, they’re very unlikely to be correct. What actually happens is you will estimate a number that you think the financiers will want to hear (and which you think you might be able to get your grubby hands on), and then spend the next six months working out how to raise the rest of the money you need actually to make the film. 

To illustrate, here’s a scene from Rain Man (Line Producer version).

A box of matches falls to the floor, spraying the contents.

Line producer: 412 Matches.
Me: Huh?
Line producer: There’re 412 matches.
Me: Wow! are you some kind of savant?
Line producer: 412 matches, give or take.
Me: What do you mean give or take?
Line producer: Well, it looks like around 412. Actually it think it’s gonna be closer to 450. If you give me ten minutes and a hundred bucks, I could count ‘em for you. *

What you actually do know at this stage (if you’re lucky) is (fanfare...):
3. The genre

No. 4 - Some movies have a fairly clearly defined target audience, hard men movies, kids movies, rom coms, the Human Centipede. But in reality the target audience is initially made up of people related to you, and you hope to god it expands from there.

You’re never actually going to have enough money to make the film - but the trick is to raise enough to make people think it’s possible and work from there. Independent movie financing is a jigsaw of oddly shaped pieces. It’s a bit like one of those ones where if you’re the first person to solve it they give you a million quid. Actually it’s exactly like one of those ones where if you’re the first person to solve it they give you a million quid. And the rest.

UK Tax Credit: The government effectively gives you back 20p in every pound you spend in the UK, as an incentive for the gigantic Studio movies to shoot here. Every so often the government decides it has run out of money and immediately cancels the UKTC. The studios immediately threaten to shoot everything in Bulgaria from now on, costing the UK economy roughly $78673bn, and the government decides to reinstate the credit, during which time several indie movies have fallen over financially, never to be heard from again. Then the next government decides the UKTC is costing our economy rather too much, and so continues the merry-go-round of idiocy.

Pre sales: Very occasionally you manage to convince someone to stump up a bunch of cash before you’ve even made the damn thing to distribute your film in their country. This is awesome as it means that someone else believes in your movie too and is lovely enough to put their dinero where their boca is. We did a bunch of these at Cannes this year (hooray for Pathé), so it seems rather easy. Actually, it’s not. Years ago this was they way you funded independent movies but these days the pre-sales market is, if not dead, then pretty comatose. 

Gap Financiers: I have to be careful here because it’s hard as a producer not to be rude about these delicate souls. They are Tony Soprano. They lend you money for a short time with an enormous vig, and then when you don’t pay, send neanderthal types around to rearrange your knees. (fyi - I may be lying about the second part, but probably not).

Equity Financiers: These people exist. They live on a large farm surrounded by dodos and unicorns, and holiday in Atlantis. They have money and are willing to put it all on ‘red’, and wait for the wheel to stop. We have one of these too. I hope he’ll let me ride his unicorn.

Broadcasters / BFI: This is the holy grail of independent film finance. They are like equity financiers, but are genuinely knowledgeable about films, and really want to help you get it made. Given that everyone who has filmed his or her cat playing the tuba on their iPhone, is trying to extract money from these guys for a feature, it’s a hell of a process getting them on board, but once you do, wonderful things can happen. (the BFI just rather helped us out of a medium-capacity hole btw, hence the eugoogly...)

‘In kind’ finance: Sometimes people give you stuff for free, and charge your budget double what they would have charged if you weren’t some broke-assed independent producer and could afford it in the first place. These folks tends to be services companies such as post production houses.

The fun part starts when you have all of the above, and you’re trying to get them all together to agree on how this mythical pie that is ‘the film’s net profits’ is going to be split. This involves the idyllically monikered ‘recoupment waterfall’, which demonstrates how the piles of cash, as they pour in to the collection account, will be apportioned among the financiers. The producers prowl among the table legs, looking for scraps.

The nightmare for the producers is the ‘closing’, which is a three-to-fifty week process of financiers fighting over the pie. You’re in the middle trying to be the voice of reason and compromise (wonderfully easy to do with other peoples money), while at the same time trying to stop the film from collapsing horribly on some tiny technical point of law or gigantic difference of opinion. This is not good for the blood pressure, and is about a complicated a process as I can imagine (which arguably may say more about the limits of my imagination). 

Ideally you want to close as early as possible, so you can start paying people thereby minimising the risk of being held hostage by the crew/varied creditors (which has happened to us previously). But these days often films don’t close until well into the shoot. We had to close early on LP as a condition of one of the financiers, and we are all the better for that. If there’s one thing to strive for as a producer, an early close is pretty near the top of the list.

My proposal to simplify the closing process is this: lock everyone in a room for three days with a can of baked beans and a loaded gun, and winner takes all.

*[Note: I showed this to my line producer, who responded as follows: Where’s the blog? I want to show it to my lawyer... I think you forgot the line where where the line producer asks how many matches are in it for them and then proceeds to tell you how you’re going to lose your house no matter how successful the film is.]

Thursday, September 22, 2011

from the beginning... pt. 2

In December 2010, we convened at Blacks in Soho: my producing partner, the director and myself. The mood was pretty dark. Nearly three years of banging our heads against a brick wall, and all we had to show for it was a stinking headache. We started talking about the way the project was conceived - a low budget thriller that felt like a truly British version of those Hollywood movies we had grown up with. This idea had somehow been lost in the fog of broken promises and seductive offers from across the Atlantic. We knew we had to take Last Passenger back to its roots, slash the budget and make it guerrilla-style.

This created another, altogether different problem: how do you make an action thriller with exploding trains on a fraction of the budget? We knew it could be done, but had to think of something big to convince the money.

The answer was a dummy trailer. After all, movies are sold to audiences on the strength of a 90 second taster full of exciting moments - maybe it would work if we just shot those moments, and showed the buyers and financiers how thrilling the movie was going to look and feel.

A few phone calls secured us a train, courtesy of the Bluebell heritage railway line, but we were on a tight schedule. This was December 2010 and the UK was being hit by some of the worst snowstorms in living memory. But we had a short window until our train disappeared into storage and we knew we had to make it happen, horizontal sleet or no. 

Producers hard at work...
Over the next couple of days we brought together a crack team of cast and crew, all prepared to brave the snow and ice to shoot our little trailer. But first we had to figure out how to turn the lights on.

One thing about producing independent films is that you tend to acquire knowledge and skills that you never thought you’d need. (For example I am currently a member of the ‘Railnuts’ messageboard). I spent a day looking at train circuit diagrams like I knew what they meant, and talking to engineers and generator hire companies, before discovering that train lighting is powered by direct current (rather than alternating current which everything else in the world uses). After some judicious googling we discovered that welding torches are also powered by D.C., and our best bet was to try and hotwire the train to a welder’s generator, and pray for a miracle.

A magnificent sight (and a flare)
The Friday before our Dec 22nd shootdate we headed out to East Grinstead station, trudging through six inches of snow until we found our train parked in a siding. It was a magnificent sight. We were met by an eccentric Australian train engineer from the Bluebell railway, and we hauled our generator to the business end of our class 423 4-VEP slam door train. He immediately disappeared under the train, emerging an hour or so later. He pulled the chord and the motor roared into life. After a brief moment the train lit up like a christmas tree. We were on.

Homemade spark effects from an awesome train dude
The weekend was fraught as preparations were made to get the cast and crew to the site. Props were found: a briefcase, roller skates, torches, fireworks, flares, a plastic dinosaur, an angle grinder and a string of fairy lights – The director’s homemade special effects. The five-strong cast included three professional actor friends, a doctor, a six year old kid from a local drama group and a professional magician. The predicted blizzard mercifully held, and everyone made it to the site. We setup a turbo gas heater in one of the carriages to keep everyone from freezing to death and got on with the shoot. It was an extraordinary feeling to be on-set finally shooting something on this movie, even this little trailer, after all the years of planning and hoping. 

We grabbed pretty much every shot we came to get, and we wrapped just in time for the last train back in to town.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

who the *!%& do you think you are...?

Ten days to go before we start shooting, and the production teeters constantly on the brink  of chaos. I should stress this is not unusual. If Parkinson’s law states that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’ (which it does FYI), a film production operates thus: “the amount of crap you have left to do will inevitably expand beyond the start of principal photography in inverse proportion to the amount of money you have to make the film, so as to generate the required adrenalin and general sense of hysteria which is the only way anyone would be crazy enough to make a film.”

Pithy, huh?

The question any producer gets asked most often is... well actually it’s “can I have more money”, but for the sake of argument, let’s focus on number 2 on the list which is “what does a producer actually do?”. This can be phrased in many ways - during production it is most likely to come from the crew, and involve liberal use of expletives - but sometimes it is asked from a genuine curiosity about how we fill our days.

The role changes according to the stage of the film, and roughly breaks down as follows:

Development: The Fantasist.

As a producer you are not actually qualified to do anything. You may have graduated from Oxbridge with a triple first in medicine, law and alchemy, but as soon as you decide to go into film production you are reborn into the world naked, (and possibly leprous). You must sally forth fuelled only by a wildly misguided self-belief, and a gnawing sense of your parents‘ disappointment at your squandered education. Inveitably, unless you are sitting on a trust fund, or discover an oil well in your garden, you are going to spend a lot of the next four years staring at a wall, alternately wondering if you couldn’t be doing something rather more constructive with the best years of your life, and praying for some kind of miracle.

The key is the idea. In truth I think a Producer stand or falls on his instinct - the ability to spot an idea that could turn into a movie that people might actually want to go and see. Ideas come from all over the place. Books are the obvious place. However, every book that sells more than eleven copies is immediately snapped up by Scott Rudin, so the indie types are looking for the overlooked gems, which carry the spine of a magical story within. (I should say here and now that books are a terrible starting point for a movie. They tend to be long, emotional, complex, and often completely lacking in exploding trains. Often a friend says to me - you should make this book into a movie. Being an indulgent kind of chap, I always ask why, and if the reason is: ‘it’s so beautifully written’, then I’m sorry it will inevitably make a horrible movie).

Short stories are better as the narrative is concentrated and focussed, and they tend to be structured much more like a film script. Remaking other (usually foreign) movies are best because most of the hard work has already been done by someone else, and you can get to a shooting script armed only with a rights agreement and google translate.

The studios have now exhausted every single property they own, and remade and rebooted them to such an extent that no-one will ever be able to make another version, so they are looking for even more ‘high concept’ material. Hence Peter Berg’s “Battleship”, based on the game and Ridley Scott’s “Monopoly” (I’m not quite sure how I am going to contain my excitement until 2014 for that one).

I am currently in a bidding war for the movie rights to ‘Ketchup’, ‘Trees’, and the ‘Dyson Triple-Cyclone Vac’.

The reason why I call it 'The Fantasist' is that it's going to take a hell of a long time to get from idea stage to script stage, and you will spend so much time trying to convince people that your coming-of-age tale about a young woman finding her spiritual nirvana in India is the definitive Zeitgeist-capturing tale and very different to the 8,674 Indian becomingvegetarian-doingyoga-dabblinginlesbianism movies currently in development, that you will seriously start to doubt your own existence.

I couldn't tell you how many companies turned down the original scripts for Last Passenger, but lets just say if I had a dollar for every one, I'd have 116 bucks. Development producing really is all about keeping the faith in the face of rejection. It can take several years to get a movie from development to financing, and that's why you can't hope to make anything unless you really love the material and believe it absolutely must get made. 

That and a pathological fear of having to get a real job...

[Shit, looks like time’s got away from me, so let’s just say ‘To Be Continued’. 
In the meantime here are the rest of what I'm now calling the 5 Ages of Producing...

Financing: The Snake Oil Salesman
Shooting: The Therapist / Politician
Post Production: Gone Fishin’
Sales: The Pitch Man]

Monday, September 12, 2011

from the beginning... pt. 1

In 2008 our script for British thriller Last Passenger was named on the Britlist, a secret film industry list of the best unproduced screenplays in the UK. It appeared next to the script for The King’s Speech, getting the same number of votes. It was a huge moment for us. Little did we know that it was going to take us three more years and pretty much all of our sanity to get the film up and running. What we didn’t know then is that we could have fixed it all for £500.

We first met Omid Nooshin in 2007 and offered him a chance to direct his debut feature, a different project developed by our production company NDF. The project wasn’t for him, but it just so happened he had another script in his back pocket. 

Last Passenger was sensational. It was Hitchcock fused with Spielberg and after a few months ironing out the kinks with Omid and his collaborator Andy Love we thought we were ready to go.

The day the list was published the phone started to ring. On the other end of the line were some of the top distribution companies in the UK. A few hours later L.A. woke up and Hollywood started calling. Ironically, this was where the wheels started to come off.

In an industry where a runaway hit like ‘Paranormal Activity’ can bring a 12,000% return on the cost of shooting, film distribution is an extremely competitive business and the penalties for missing out on a hit are severe. The pressure is on to grab the hot projects, or at least make sure your rivals don’t.
With all the buzz around Last Passenger, the studios were dangling superstar names in front of us. As a result the budget also started to creep up, and before long we were at three times the original starting cost. And while playing fantasy casting was fun, we needed to find the cash to make the film and went out into the marketplace full of optimism, armed with a hot script and a list of some of the most elusive actors in the industry.

But the flames that burn the brightest also burn shortest and buzz can die as quickly as it comes. Two years later we had been rejected by more than a hundred companies, reluctant to fund a picture with a budget size that no longer made sense for a director’s first feature film. All of the financiers and distributors who had been so enthusiastic about the script slowly melted away, but not before leading us up the garden path and back again, pausing only for a brief fumble in the gazebo. We were out of options, low on energy, and out of money. 

It looked like the film was going on the shelf.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


Fuck. I seem to have started smoking again. Not properly, though. Never properly
Too tired to make it up onto the roof so i’m distracting myself elsewhere.

We’re closing the finance on Last Passenger at the moment, and the days are pretty intense. All the financing agreements, producer agreements, cast agreements, crew contracts - everyone wants to have their say in the small print. It stretches on for weeks and  is pretty draining for everyone involved
I can’t help thinking there must be an easier way. There are dozens of movies made every year in the UK (too many in fact, but that’s a whole other story), but every time you close it seems you’re re-inventing the wheel.

However, we are the eye of the storm - calming, reassuring, soothing the hysteria which seems to fuel the process. A lot of it comes from the fact that film is really a marriage of art and business, and the cohabitation is not entirely a happy one. Explaining to an actor (or even, shamefully an agent), that the reason the film isn’t yet green-lit, because some wording is wrong on the third paragraph of page three of the music publishing agreement, is usually a pretty unrewarding experience, but you have to keep all the plates spinning.

Last friday we had a moment that brought back into sharp focus why we’re really doing this. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the paperchase that you forget we’re really here to make movies. Standing on the studio floor on stage H at Shepperton Studios, watching giant low loaders maneuvering the train carriages that form the set of our film Last Passenger into place, there was an electricity in the air - the kind you feel before embarking on an adventure. 

Four years have passed since Ado and I met our director Omid Nooshin and started working on LP, and to tell the truth it’s been pretty rough going, but as Omid, Ado and I stood watching, LP was genuinely crystallising before our eyes. As one hundred and fifty tonnes of metal swung gently into position inside the massive studio, none of us could really think of anything to say which would really capture the magic of the moment, so for a while we just grinned at each other like goons. 

Finally, Omid turned to us and said:

“This is really happening guys. Nothing can stop us now.”